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Budget Cuts Could Hit Missouri's Neediest Citizens the Most

March 1, 2002
By: Tiffany Ellis
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Some of Missouri's neediest citizens would find their situations worsening under the operating budget presented by the state's governor.

Children might be cut off from tutoring, adults on Medicaid would no longer have dental and optical benefits, and school nurses would lose support for some services. The agencies that provide those services say they know the situation is going to get worse before it gets better.

The executive director of Caring Communities of Columbia and Boone County said it would face a 60 percent reduction in funding from the state under the administration plan, which will means less community programming for area residents.

"There's some things that we've been able to do in the community that will definitely be missed," said Mike Bloemke, Caring Communities' Executive Director. "Where people are going to go to get those things - I don't know."

The Social Services Department, which coordinates most of the state's public assistance programs, would lose nearly $100 million if Gov. Bob Holden's 2003 budget recommendations are approved. Only $1 million of those funds are recommended for replaced by supplements from the "Rainy Day" fund.

Use of the fund, which is reserved for times of budget shortfall or state crisis, must be approved by the state legislature by two-thirds majorities.

With budget cuts spanning across state departments, Bloemke said the traditional agencies that people could otherwise turn to for eliminated services, may not be available as alternatives.

One program in danger is Caring Communities' mental health referral program, which provides funding for qualified individuals who are unable to afford services on their own. Bloemke said he is concerned that if the governor's budget recommendations are accepted, the program would have to be completely eliminated.

Despite the bleak predictions, some legislators have expressed their dedication to social service programs with committments to minimize funding cuts.

"In the appropriations committee we're committed to putting money back into the programs," said Lana Baker, D-St. Louis County, who is chair of the House Social Services Committee and also serves on the Social Services Appropriations Committee. "The sickest and poorest are who we need to find the money for to make sure they're okay."

But, there may not be any money to fill holes left by budget cuts. That means programs will be eliminated and services will be slashed.

Most of the cuts will not require legislative approval, but changes will instead be accomplished through administrative decisions or simple rule changes.

One major change within the Social Services Department that would save the state $16 million is the elimination of adult dental and optical care for people on Medicaid. Although there are more than 800,000 individuals on Medicaid statewide, Social Service officials said they have no estimate of how many people currently receive the coverage or will be affected by the change.

Also built into the governor's budget recommendation is an increase in eligibility requirements for in-home care for the handicapped. Approximately 10,000 individuals would no longer receive services under the plan which would go into effect July 1 of next year, pending legislative approval.

"You'll have to have a little bit more difficulty getting around to receive in-home care," said Nancy McAnaugh, an analyst for the administration's budget office.

Other efforts within the department have included minimizing costs at the administrative level. More than 350 vacant positions will be eliminated, said department spokesperson Deb Hendricks.

Job assistance programs and transportation for the handicapped and disabled also would be cut.

The Missouri Elderly and Handicapped Transporation Assistance Program (MEHTAP) provides state financial assistance to supplement costs incurred by not-for-profit transporters of the elderly and people with disabilities.

Rep. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee which handles the transportation budget, says she is sympathetic to the elderly and handicapped citizens that benefit from the assistance programs.

Bray complained the govenror's budget plan, without the special "Rainy Day" budget would leave many eldery and physically disabled looking for rides.

"Those people will have to go begging for ways to get to the doctor."

Bray estimated some three-million trips for the elderly and physically disabled now financed by the program would be cut.

But, none of the cuts have been without opposition from social welfare advocates. A number of groups have banded together to form the Missouri Coalition for Budget and Policy Priorities in response to proposed cuts.

Peter DeSimone, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said that the group has been working with others to develop an in-depth analysis and critique of the governor's budget that will be presented this week.